Vegetables Are Good For You And The Planet


Photo: Monica Medina

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

A recent study demonstrated that perennial vegetables are very important in preventing and mitigating soil erosion and climate change, Virginia Gewin reported last month for Civil Eats. This category of vegetables, which grow year-round, goes beyond simply artichokes and asparagus — they studied over 600 species. And they were able to demonstrate a “full accounting of their potential to pull carbon from the atmosphere.”

Why This Matters: As the authors of the study contend, “Perennial vegetables are a neglected and underutilized class of crops with potential to address 21st-century challenges.” These vegetables contain immense nutritional benefits, as well as benefits to the environment. The study, in Gewin’s words, showed that by “increasing perennial vegetable acreage to 26 million hectares (from roughly 3.3 million hectares today) by 2050 [we] could store an additional 280.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year.” Plus, growing these vegetables can help address the nutrient deficiencies that affect more than 2 billion people.  So please eat your perennial veggies — its good for all of us!

A Life-Giving Vegetable

Many followers of permaculture have lauded the benefits of perennial vegetables. This study echoes these thoughts. The lead author of the study, Eric Toensmeier, told Civil Eats, “There are so many cases where a plant on this list will have more than twice the amount of key nutrients of traditional vegetables you can buy at the store.” Some of the plants Toensmeier is particularly interested in include moringa and Nopales cactus.

But the benefits do not stop there. The plant also offers numerous benefits to the environment. The potential storing of carbon dioxide is, as Gewin noted, “roughly the same as cutting meat from American diets or eliminating the emissions of 60 million cars.” In addition, there are short-term benefits that cultivating these plants can confer upon farmers. As Stacy Reader, a research associate at the agricultural non-profit ECHO told Civil Eats, by growing perennial vegetables, “farmers see the benefits of having trees on farms—chiefly, the soil stays in place.”

Next Steps?

However, this is not to claim that perennial vegetables are a panacea to world hunger and climate change. Reader made the essential point to Civil Eats that, “Adoption [of a new species] goes over best when it’s needed by the community and promoted by farmers in the region.” The planting of different and diverse perennials must be a community- led and engaged effort.

There are further questions the study raises which must be answered. In the words of Courtney Leisner, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences as Auburn University, this paper should be treated as a “to-do” list. Some of the questions that must be answered include, “ Where can these crops be grown? What percentage of the nutrients are bioavailable? How climate hardy are these crops?” But to Leisner the most important question of all is “Where should we focus our resources next.”

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